Over Chinese New Year, our writer John Acton went on a trip of a lifetime to Nepal. Below he recounts his journey of dizzying heights, extreme weather and getting to know the local culture. Who knows? Perhaps it might inspire you to follow in our writer’s footsteps.
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport marked my entry and exit to the country of Nepal. Red bricked walls gave a homely feel as I whisked by rucksack from the conveyor belt. With a visa in less than ten minutes, I exited into the icy cold air of baggage reclaim, with only an hour to spare before the clock hit 2017’s New Year’s Day. A pre-booked taxi-van, full-throttled through bustling streets as revellers greeted the Gregorian calendar year with optimistic open arms. Before long I had checked in, drank a celebratory ginger tea and gone to bed, shattered from the journey from Dongguan, via Hong Kong and New Delhi. Ten hours of flights and wheels hadn’t been so bad. Just not what I was looking forward to!
Check-in at the Alobar 1000 Hostel was simple and swift, despite the New Year revelries outside. The pre-booked shared dorm for six was actually an 8-berth. No worries. After a good shower in the morning, I had a simple breakfast of porridge and fruit. A porter and guide service is attached but was above my budget so I opted away from utilising that.
Many people fly into Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport, noted as the world’s most extreme airport.
Following a light sleep, I packed my rucksack’s contents from locker G2G (Good to go?). The 5am coach time was not my choice of times, nor was 9 hours on a bus! Negotiating my way around a busy bus park, with at least 500 buses and only a single lightbulb on, wasn’t easy. A kind man pointed me to the bus number 5064, the numbers etched in the beautiful Nepali text and not the Romanised style I am more familiar with.
I boarded the cramped set of wheels with forty seats. Space was not optional. A roof area would be available for summer passengers, but the severe morning frost and fog made this uninviting. The driver assisted me in positioning my lanky legs behind his seat and then the engine kicked in. The previous day, I had visited the TIMS (Trekkers Information Management Service) office. I paid for the permit and soon after booked my bus ticket to Jiri. The ticket was 590 Nepalese Rupees (NPR), even though I paid 400 more for a taxi and arranged ticket via a tourist agency. The adventure was under way…
Many people fly into Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport, noted as the world’s most extreme airport. The 11.7% gradient, from a mountain wall at the northern end, and length of 527m to a drop into a valley, have added sphincter tension to many a passenger. Sadly, several flights have met with the worst of disasters here. Sir Edmund Hillary’s first wife and daughter unfortunately perished on the old grass runway.
I had time to play with. I was afforded the classic Jiri to Sagarmartha pathway, the route many explorers and climbers followed having walked from Kathmandu! Jiri is regarded as the gateway to Everest. It was also, for many years, the end of the road.
Leaving behind Kathmandu shrouded in dust, a cold thick fog and a bustle akin to the busiest of busy Chinese cities, I relaxed, well, as much as the rock solid seat padding would allow. The journey involved two toilet stops by the roadside; some amateur road-building as we tackled mudslide hit segments of road; a meal of Dal Bhat, a staple food of trekking in Nepal; arrival with the bus slamming on the brakes, and sliding forward in dirt. The driver, shouted in plain English, “Jiri, Hotel.” He gestured at me. I gathered my rucksack, stepped off the bus into ankle deep mud. The bus rolled away. I turned back. Hotel Everest, 1950m high, claimed the sign. First lodgings sorted. The only lodgings, in fact.
The first eight days varied in climate and altitude, up and down testing passes and near abandoned earthquake struck villages. Along the way I met two Australians, John and Will, and the faster trekker I have encountered, Vincois, from France. We often stayed in rebuilt lodges, fashioned in wood and corrugated tin, having previously been constructed of timber and stone. With the earthquake destruction fresh in mind and impoverished regions still recovering, preventing a return to traditional constructs. Staying at villages, barely on the map, like Bhandar, Sete, and Bupsa Danda with the most luxurious thing being a light switch made, me feel lucky for my privileged lifestyle. Shivalaya and Kinja villages resembled piles of bricks rather than villages. It was most saddening to see.
Despite the ruins, the people remained warm, welcoming and wonderfully witty. Death, I suspect because of reincarnation beliefs, did not scare the people. They simply embraced life by celebrating and enjoying it freely. Lodge owners, Sherpas, porters and guides all on out-of-season hiatus seemed relaxed, even with new satellite televisions and Wi-Fi access. There was a real gritty feel of nature, agriculture and community throughout my expedition.
Fuelled by fried Tibetan bread, Sherpa stews, Mo-Mos (steamed and and fried dumplings), garlic soups, and Dal Bhat rice dishes, the excursion remained pure of most desires to snack. I did find the odd chocolate bar and sugary drink on offer, but resisted.
Sweeping views of forests covering sloping lands, patches of sub-tropical plants and green jungle foliage, so dense, it made me wonder if I could walk any further up the pathway, from time to time, in the first six days of trekking. The region just north of Lukla, became much more temperate with pines and firs dotted amongst the Rhododendron forests.
I had reached 5000m.
In terms of altitude, it was mostly up until I reached Thukla before turning back. Ben Nevis, in the U.K., stands at 1,345m (4,411 ft.). It is the U.K.’s tallest mountain. I had reached 5000m, the lowest I went was 1500m, above 3000m several times, and down to the mid 2000m stages time and time again. With 20kg of weight on my back, I didn’t feel so tested until the final hour of most days’ treks. Some trails would start at 8am, dusk and end around dawn, 5pm. Many finished earlier.
One strenuous day, both physically and mentally taxing involved ascending a kilometre before descending the same! I was well and truly spent as I reached Junbesi, 12 hours after departing Sete. I had to shelter, that day, from a blizzard on the snow-coated Lamjura La pass. It was a tough day with the only sinister weather I encountered in a month within Nepal. Eerie and frighteningly cold. I thought walking down would be easy!
Large steps downwards, occasionally showing a dusting of snow that had breached the thick tree canopy overhead. The sky disappeared above, hidden by foliage. Still air and an eerie lack of sound pinpricked my ears up, alert, listening for any discernible sounds. Few came. Not even birdsong. The climb to 3736m, along a ridge that hit 3300m and finally 3530m had been relentlessly tough, on icy slippery paths with a sheer drop far below. The descent started as a welcome break. It almost ended on tears. The downwards path seemed to go on forever. Down, down and down like listening to Radiohead and mulling over personal depression on a grey autumn day, faced with a long cold winter ahead. A massive downer. Down. Seemingly eternally cast downwards.
Gaurishankar Conservation Area and Sagamartha Conservation Zone both required inexpensive and easily obtainable permits. No trekking is allowed after dusk and before dawn. The pathways usually have a huge drop into dangerous river torrents below – or in winter, cold glacial ice. Along the tracks there were ample opportunities to observe yak and mule trains, the only express delivery aside from human labour in the region. There are no cars and trucks beyond Jiri – with only two small airfields serving passengers, but mostly cargo consignments. After Namche Bazaar, only humans and local villagers with small numbers of yaks are allowed to carry materials. Prices of food rise, but not massively, like the rising height of the towering mountains surrounding the extreme altitude villages.
Peaks such as the charismatic Ama Dablam, the unconquered Khumbiyela, and the Lhotse face (leading to Everest, along a yellow band of cliff sediment) gave marvellous views and rewards for slogging marches each day. Gurkha-soldier built bridges, trails zig-zagging up wall-like paths, and thundering river rapids added drama to an already dramatic and imposing landscape.Peak XV, was renamed by the British after Welsh surveyor, George Everest. He didn’t even want the mountain to be named after him! It stuck in the west but Sagarmatha is the Nepali name for what many call Everest. Deodungha is one of many local names, like Qomolangma (Tibetan name). Most mean “holy mother mountain” or in Chinese, Zhū Mù Lǎng Mǎ Fēng (珠穆朗玛峰).
I later sheltered from a blizzard at their father’s lodge on the ridge of the mountain pass.
The local people never sought to scale the mountain. They often named and used local passes to Tibet, but had no hunger to scale peaks. It may have angered the Goddess Miyolangsangma, and defied local spiritual beliefs. Besides, it had no benefit to the local Khumbu valley people, until explorers set their sights on the pyramid-shaped apex. Looking at the mountain range, I was happy to please Miyolangsangma by paying pilgrimage to the sight of wonder and also allow myself time to reflect on my life in solitude.
Many sweet and pure moments were enjoyed throughout the trek. Spying a drunken Sherpa lady dancing the crests of a steep footpath, having enjoyed an afternoon’s Raksi (rice wine), made me laugh. Her drunken laughter and songs could be heard long after she had walked many miles away. One day, overshooting a pathway one day, I actually did some free climbing over a ravine, by accident, like you do. No ropes and too much weight on my back. I imagine in that moment my insurance was voided. I was closer to Christopher McCandles (read Into The Wild!) than my usual level-headed self.
Another day, I traversed a broken footbridge only to find the newer bridge a few hundred metres upstream. The sheer drop into icy water between missing planks didn’t worry me. Honest. Another day, on the 1000 metre ascent of Lamjura La, I had been regular passed and overtook a young pair of children heaving 15-20kg of potatoes. A 12 year old girl and her 14 year old brother had stopped to talk with me several times. I later sheltered from a blizzard at their father’s lodge on the ridge of the mountain pass. Black tea and stories of living at 3500m passed by swiftly, as the hour long blizzard swept over.
Why did I choose this trek? Because it is there! I have grown up on stories of explorers and always dreamed of seeing the tallest mountain range, the monasteries and landmarks along steep trekking paths, and the local wildlife with my naked eyes. Throughout this journey, I had learnt much. Scenery, history, culture, and adventure had formed one delightfully exquisite and awe-inspiring view of Nepal. There were days, I witnessed the underprivileged of the country, the fragilities of a country emerging from political instability and rising from the ashes of two tremendously devastating earthquakes, but the experience remained eye-opening in many ways. My batteries of inspiration are charged to full.